Pioneering Patriots: Montford Point Marines - Local news, weather, sports Savannah | WSAV On Your Side

Pioneering Patriots: Montford Point Marines

SAVANNAH, GA -

On June 1, 1942, during the height of World War II, thousands of African American men from across the country flocked to recruiting offices- eager to serve in the United States Marines.

John White was one of them.

"Rev. Mark Gilbert came to Beach High School and asked that all of us who were eligible to try and get into the Marine Corps and the navy," White recalls. "Each and everyone of us was so gung ho. We didn't care where we were from."

Prior to that time, blacks were not allowed into the marines. But an executive order from President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 changed that.

They would break the final color barrier in the military... though their service was initially unwelcome.

These new recruits weren't sent to traditional boot camps, but underwent basic training at Montford Point... a segregated facility at Camp Lejune, North Carolina.

"In May, we were sent to Montford Point which at the time was nothing but woods, snakes, and bears and swamp... so, we rebuilt Montford Point."

They served in all black units afterwards.
"I was in the 44th platoon. 32 people in each platoon."

White dedicated a total of 34 months to the Marine Corps- 24 of those overseas.
"We were not in combat because we were a defense battalion. We relieved other units that were in combat."

Though he never fought on the battle field, the 89-year-old remembers the conflicts he and his comrades faced back at home.
"I know a fella who went to Statesboro. When he came home, he was put in jail because they claimed no blacks were in the Marine Corps. We caught a lot of sanctions."

White finished his tour as one of the first contemporary U.S. Marines- a pioneer in the armed forces. Unlike other African American units, such as the Air Force's Tuskeegee Airmen, or the army's Buffalo Soldiers, the Montford Point Marines never had a prominent place in history... until June 27, 2012.

70 years after enlisting, White and more than 400 other Montford Marines gathered in Washington DC for a ceremony where they were recognized with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.

It's a day he says he never thought he'd see. Pomp and circumstance for service that for so long seemingly went unnoticed- now forever anchored in the history of our nation's military.

"To all of us, it was tremendous and we are proud that we did what we did as young men... not knowing that we would somehow be recognized later in life."

About 20,000 African American Marines passed through training at Montford Point from 1942 to 1949, when it was closed and recruit training was integrated.

There are three other local survivors of the Montford Point Marines: Reginald Brown, Samuel Berksteiner, and Willie Outler.

By the way, Mr. White went on to make history in law enforcement as well. He's the sole survivor of the "Original 9", Savannah's first African American Police officers.

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